Laslo Boyd: Bill Cole Takes Over at BDC

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By: Laslo Boyd 

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake made a bold move last week in selecting Councilman Bill Cole as the new President and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corporation. Based on his record as a member of City Council, Cole is likely to bring a level of energy and vision to the role unseen in recent times.

In many respects, Cole looks like the ideal candidate for the job. His council district includes all of the Inner Harbor and the surrounding communities. As an elected official, he has built relationships with both the business community and neighborhood groups. He has been an outspoken advocate for new economic development initiatives in Baltimore.

Cole is also well known to all the key actors on the local and state political scene.  In his day job, he has worked closed with retiring University of Baltimore President Bob Bogomolny, who was widely acknowledged as having helped reshape the mid-town area of the city.

When I talked with Cole last week, his enthusiasm for plunging into his new role was very evident. His comments reflected an effort to find the balance between his need to learn more about the agency and his own ideas about how best to move forward on an agenda for economic development.

Even at this early stage, before he actually starts working at BDC, Cole has a few principles that are likely to guide his efforts.  For one, he argues that economic development must include both the waterfront of Baltimore and its neighborhoods.  It can’t just be one or the other.

Of course, finding that balance has been a perennial issue for every mayor and every economic development head ever since the Inner Harbor was first proposed. Invariably, whatever course Cole takes, there will be criticism that he is devoting too many resources to one priority at the expense of the other. It’s a big challenge, but at least Cole seems already aware of it.

With respect to neighborhoods, the new BDC head argued against a single, overarching approach. Cole distained a “cookie cutter” formula and suggested instead that there need to be micro-level plans based on the needs of individual parts of the city. One example he cited is the significance of learning what goods and services are needed in various neighborhoods, whether grocery stores, dry cleaners, banks or others. 

That view goes beyond what is often thought of as traditional economic development. Cole sees the target as supporting viable communities and improving quality of life. 

On another side of the equation, Cole argued that it was important to be bold and to have vision. His references to Theodore McKeldin, William Donald Schaefer, and Walter Sondheim give you the clear impression that he is indeed thinking big.

We talked about two big projects that have been stalled for years which Cole would like to see move forward. One is the so-called Superblock on the west side of downtown. Mired in lawsuits, financing problems and inertia, the Superblock has been the subject of renewal hopes since at least 2005. Can Cole and the Mayor break the logjam and get the project moving? That’s certainly one of his biggest challenges.

Similarly, the effort to redevelop the area around the State Office Complex seems finally to have gotten beyond the delays caused by a lawsuit backed by Peter Angelos. Cole calls the area a “dead zone” that offers a fantastic opportunity to link neighborhoods, transit and new development.

Moving these two projects forward would be more dramatic than the payoff on a long-shot daily double at the track. Given the State’s ever increasing focus on gambling revenues, that may be an apt analogy, but probably a better bet.

Those two examples are far from an exhaustive list. Cole’s landscape will change after he takes office and he will undoubtedly see opportunities and challenges that he is not yet aware of.

To succeed, Bill Cole will need lots of help.  He talks about partnership with the business community. He cites the team that he will need to work with at the BDC. If State Center is actually going to be built, it will require the active cooperation and assistance of key players in State Government.

There will soon be a new Secretary of Business and Economic Development and Cole will need to work closely with that person.  If Anthony Brown is elected governor, there is a lot of speculation that Ken Ulman would have a major role in the state’s economic development efforts.

The other key person is Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Several observers with whom I talked alluded to difficulties that Brenda McKenzie, Cole’s predecessor, had in getting backing from the Mayor’s Office. Cole has been a strong supporter of Rawlings-Blake and cites his close relationship with her as one of the reasons he agreed to take the position as BDC head.

That may be the key to his ability to succeed. When I asked him about the criticism that the Mayor doesn’t convey a vision for the city — a point that I have made in previous columns — Cole presented the most coherent and persuasive case that I have yet heard for the Mayor’s efforts.

If Bill Cole is allowed to be bold and to pursue a vision for the city’s economic future, and if he has the full and unequivocal support of the Mayor, his “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” may pay big dividends for Baltimore City and its residents.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.